If times weren't so tough, watching major state governments implode in a frenzy of self-indulgence and corruption might be a form of entertainment. But judging by the messes in Albany, Sacramento and a handful of other state capitals, Americans who care about good government can only reach for the smelling salts.
Of course, ineffective government is the oldest story in the book. But the travails of South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (R), Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) and the entire top tier of the New York state government have recently brought the issue to the forefront.
NationalJournal.com presents the nation's six most dysfunctional state governments, based on interviews with a range of state political experts. The ratings are based on four criteria:
• The quality of leadership -- by the state's legislature, its current governor and, where applicable, its ousted governor. • The whiff of criminality in the state's top political leadership.• The severity of the state's policy challenges. • The intensity of the media circus surrounding state government.
Each state is graded in each category on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 representing the worst, the most severe or the most intense, and 1 representing the most benign. The categories are averaged to produce a final score and ranking.
Because the list is limited to current trouble spots, a state like Louisiana -- where the corruption and inefficiency is legendary, but whose current leadership under Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) appears conscientious -- does not make the list. For now, anyway.
No. 6: California
Leadership Problems: 8
In the movies, Arnold Schwarzenegger was able to vanquish any enemy. As governor of California, the script usually hasn't ended that way.
Handcuffed by spending requirements and legislative supermajorities approved by voters at the ballot box, state lawmakers and the governor have fought to a standstill on how to address the state's massive budget gap -- $26 billion and growing. After voters in May rejected a slate of proposals to ease the state's fiscal situation, neither the heavily Democratic legislature nor the moderate Republican governor has managed to find the right formula for compromise.
There's no whiff of criminality in California's current mess. That one factor saves the Golden State from ranking much higher on this list.
Statewide Challenges: 10
California's challenges are arguably the most severe of any state's. It has the fifth-worst unemployment in the nation (11.5 percent) and has a number of regions where the real estate market has tanked. But what's attracting the most attention is the state's ongoing budget problems.
For only the second time since the Great Depression, California is beginning to issue IOUs rather than live checks to some creditors. These IOUs are due to be paid in October with an additional 3.75 percent interest -- but no one is certain that the state will be ready to shell out by then. The move has sent shudders through the credit markets, putting the state's already shaky bond rating at further risk.
Media Circus: 6
With a huge economy, a role as one of the nation's cultural capitals and the governorship of a larger-than-life actor, California's woes have remained in the news. (In a move unthinkable for most states, NBC late-night host Jimmy Fallon recently used California's fiscal crisis as the topic of one of his recurring comedy bits, in which he "slow jams" the news to the soulful accompaniment of his house band, the Roots.)
Still, in California, policy coverage tends to be heavy in Sacramento and sporadic elsewhere. "We're sanguine about our demise here," said one veteran reporter in the capital.
TOTAL DYSFUNCTIONALITY: 6.25